I graduated from a relatively prestigious institution, but my cousin, who was financially not as lucky as me, studied at a local Bangladeshi University. But I don’t think I am a better electrical engineer than him. After all, the syllabus of electrical engineering is the same everywhere. And I am most certain that I did not have better professors (Here’s why).

So what do college rankings mean? Do we have to study in a reputed institution to be successful? Before we answer these questions, let’s look at how two of the most renowned organizations calculate in their ranking systems.

US News and World Report

First, the US News divides the universities into ten categories to not compare institutions with different academic missions. The first category is National Universities. These universities have undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs with a strong emphasis on research. The next category is National Liberal Arts Colleges which consists of universities that focus mainly on undergraduate programs. 

The next four categories – North, South, Midwest, West – are clubbed under Regional Universities that focus mainly on undergraduate and master’s programs. The last four categories, also based on their regions – North, South, Midwest, West – are clubbed under Regional Colleges. These are universities that focus mainly on undergraduate programs with less than 50% Liberal Arts majors. 

Then, the universities are scored based on nine weighted criteria. These criteria are changed slightly every year. The following are the criteria used for the 2021 rankings.

1. Outcomes (22%)
  1. Graduation Rate: The percentage of students who attain their degree within the first six years of their study
  2. Retention Rate: The percentage of students who continue to study in the following academic year
2. Social Mobility (5%)

The graduation rate and retention rate of students who receive Pell Grants.

3. Graduation Rate Performance (8%)

This is the ratio of students who actually graduated to the predicted number of students in their first-year who would graduate

4. Faculty Resources (20%)
  1. Class Size
  2. Faculty Salary
  3. Proportion of Faculty with Highest Degrees
  4. Student to Faculty Ratio
  5. Proportion of Full-time Faculty
5. Expert Opinion (20%)

For this criteria, the US News sends a peer-assessment survey to the provosts, deans of admission, and university presidents, asking them what they think of all the other universities in their categories.

6. Financial Resources (10%)

Per Student Spending: The average amount of money they spend on each student

7. Student Selectivity (7%)
  1. Standardized Test Scores
  2. High School Class Standing
8. Alumni Givings (3%)

A measure of how well the alumni donate to the university

9. Graduate Indebtedness (5%)

The measure of debt owed to the federal government by the students.

QS World Ranking

Unlike the US News and World Report, QS World Ranking does not divide the universities based on their academic missions. The ratings are based on the following six weighted criteria.

1. Academic Reputation (40%)

Academic reputation is measured based on the answers collected from over 130,000 experts through a survey about the teaching quality and research work of institutions.

2. Employer Reputation (20%)

Employers are asked to identify the universities from which they get the best employees.

3. Faculty-Student Ratio (20%)

To measure the teaching quality of the institution.

4. Citations Per Faculty (10%)

A measure of research intensity of the institution. The nature of some departments is such that they cannot publish as frequently as other departments. Such differences are accounted for in this criteria.

5. International Faculty and International Student Ratio (10%)

International faculty and international student ratio gives a measure of diversity.

The Problem

Academic reputation accounts for a whopping 40% of a university’s ranking in QS. What’s ridiculous is the way how they measure academic reputation. First of all, how will the presidents and other “experts” know about the nature of operations in the other universities? Second of all, I am most certain that presidents don’t even know everything about the programs in their universities. There are 133 undergraduate programs at Texas A&M University. Are you telling me the president is aware of how every faculty teaches his/her class?

According to US News rankings, expert opinion accounts for 20%. The “experts” are asked to do a survey on all the universities in their category. There are at least 250 universities in the National Universities category. So presidents from national universities are asked to give their “expert” opinions on 250 universities. How will they know about all of them?

Another thing I find funny is how US News allots 20% to Faculty Resources when the sub-criteria don’t even indicate anything about their quality of teaching. Why is faculty salary a criterion? Does a higher-paid faculty teach better than a lower one? The other criteria also don’t indicate anything about how well a professor teaches. The faculty-student ratio is the only one that makes sense, but it still doesn’t give the full picture. I graduated from a university with one of the highest faculty-student ratios, but believe me; if the professor is not good at teaching, it really doesn’t matter.

The US News also takes into account the standardized test scores and high-school performance of the incoming class. A more selective school indicates a higher “smartness” of the incoming class. In his article published in The New Yorker, Gladwell explains why higher selectivity is not necessarily good.

He argues that highly selective schools have less efficacy. For example, Yale University is so selective that their predicted graduation rate in 2011 was 96%; thus, their efficacy score will never be more than +4. In contrast, Penn State University, which caters to a wide range of students, had a predicted graduation rate of 73%. However, the actual graduation rate was 85%, and hence an efficacy score of +12.

This shows that highly selective schools just take in smart students and produce smart graduates. But less selective schools have the potential of transforming the smartness of their incoming students. Gladwell also states that there is no “right answer” at the end of the day, and it depends on the people if they prefer selectivity over efficacy.

The only metric I am happy to see is the Employer Reputation in QS World Rankings. It shows if the university has trained its students to perform well in their jobs. However, other metrics, such as the average starting salary of the graduates, job relevance, etc, gives a much better idea of how well a program prepares its students to face the real world.

I am astonished that neither of the organizations take any sort of student feedback to rank colleges. After all, who better than the students can accurately talk about the quality of teaching in their universities. A student can give better feedback on the class than a president from some other university. They are the ones who can get the real truth out there. How about a metric that takes feedback from the current students about their professors? How about a metric that asks alumni how much they would credit their university for success in their careers? Four years ago, when I was going through the rankings, I thought the organizations actually ranked colleges based on these questions.

Also, why is affordability not a criterion? QS rankings award points for higher international faculty and student ratio because they indicate diversity amongst the student body. In that case, affordability should also be rewarded because it shows that the university accommodates students from different social classes. Furthermore, a college education is an investment for families. And the first step to decide if an investment will be good is to see its cost and then its returns (in this case, average salary of graduates). The ranking systems measure neither.

Concluding Remarks

Ranking systems simply define some criteria that they believe represent the true value of a college. As we saw in the example of Yale vs Penn State, it depends on what metric these organizations prefer. I could come up with my own system to rank universities, which is probably what prospective students should do. It is very difficult to come up with a truly objective college ranking system. So, you should rank colleges based on what’s important to you. For me, the location, affordability, and program choice are the most important factors.

You must keep in mind to see how well the university performs in your program of choice rather than its overall performance. Do the program activities align with your goals and interests? Is the faculty-student ratio good in that specific department? Where do students from that program get jobs at? Does it offer funding and scholarships? No president’s opinion is more important than yours.

Remember, you don’t need MIT, Stanford, or Harvard to be successful. If you have the confidence, determination and persistence, you will eventually win in life.


  1. Great post. I had never looked into it myself, what the score breakdown was, so learning that so much of a university’s ranking is based on “opinion” is eye-opening.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.